How the Jews built Toronto
In early 21st century, more than half of the Jewish population of Canada lives in Toronto. Jews have lived in the city since the 19th century. The Jewish population of Toronto is diverse in terms of its varied religious currents, historical background as well as unique cultural and social identities.
Toronto is home to congregations of several currents of Judaism, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, conservative and Orthodox. In various waves of immigration, Jews arrived from different localities, bringing with them a different heritage, experience and religious movement.
Organized Jewish community life in Toronto is thought to have begun in 1849. The first synagogue established in Toronto was the Holy blossom Temple, a Reform congregation founded in 1856 by Jews from Germany, the United States, Great Britain and Eastern Europe. Many of the small immigrant congregations later merged, creating larger congregations of mixed communities.
Shortly after 1856 two groups merged as the Holy Blossom Temple retaining the corporate name of Toronto Hebrew congregation (1971). Members of this congregation, Orthodox at its inception, were from various parts of Europe. The synagogue was known as the Daytshishe Shul not for "ethnic" reasons so much as for its tendency to a modernized way of worship.
With the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe in the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Chevra T'hillim (1883), whose members originated from Russia; and Shomrei Shabbos (Orthodox,1889), in the early 1950s the former two merged as Beth Tzedec (Conservative). In 1899 Beth Jacob, known as the Poylishe Shul, and in 1902 the Romanian synagogue, also known as Adath Israel, began to function. After the turn of the century shtiblech, kleyzlech (small prayer houses), and synagogues proliferated, and by the 1940s, there were close to sixty synagogues in the city of Toronto. By 2011, there were more than one hundred.
Reform Judaism developed slowly in Toronto. The first moves in that direction were made in the 1880s. From the turn of the 20th century to about the end of the 1930s each "ethnic" segment of immigrant Jewry had its spiritual leader.
In 1871 there were 157 Jews and in 1881, 548. Toronto's Jewish population grew steadily from the 1890s through the post-World War I period.
Immigration dropped in the 1930s due to the restrictions imposed and to the depression, but groups of Austrian and German Jews who fled from Hitler arrived during this period. In the 1940s and early 1950s, about 40,000 Holocaust survivors came to Canada, settling mainly in Toronto and Montreal. During the 1960's thousands of Moroccan-born Jews (as well as Spain) immigrated to Canada and established the first Sephardic community in Toronto and established their synagogues and associations. As of 2011, this community numbered 27,000 people.
With the rise of Quebec Sovereignty Movement, the Jews of Montreal, a primarily Anglophone community, were faced with increased anti-Semitism which resulted in mass migration to Toronto. By the 1970s, Toronto had become the epicenter of Canadian Jewry and home to the largest Jewish population in Canada. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, there were 188,715 Jews residing in the Toronto Metropolitan area with 11,070 in the city of Toronto itself. The majority of Toronto's Jewish population has lived in Toronto for only one or two generations.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Canada was a major center of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Approximately 70% of Jewish immigrants from the FSU reside in Greater Toronto. In 1996, there were about 16,000 Jews born of Soviet parents, primarily refuses who arrived during the 1970s and 1980s. By 2003, the number of Jews from the FSU was estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000.
In the first years of the 21st century, in Toronto, 20% of the Jews identify as Orthodox, 40% Conservative, 35% Reform, and the rest as nondenominational. Jews comprise approximately 3.4% of the city's total population.
Like most cities with a sizeable Jewish population, Toronto has its Jewish enclaves. By the 1930s, much of the Jewish community had moved west from "The Ward" to the Kensington Market district, where Jews represented upwards of 80% of the population. Following World War II, a number of wealthier Jewish families moved to Forest Hill, a neighborhood located north of Toronto's downtown. Since the early 20th century, Bathurst Street has been the heart of the Jewish community, and since the 1970s, its northern section has been the cultural center for the city's Russian-Jewish population. After so many Russian delicatessens and stores were established, the neighborhood was nicknamed "Little Moscow".
A Jewish Cultural and social life have been prosperous for over a century in Toronto, beginning with World War I, where Christian missionaries were active in the Jewish quarter. The missions provided medical and obstetric services, and this stimulated the Jewish community efforts to provide their own services.
In 1911 a coalition of radical groups founded the National Radical School in Toronto, the first such Yiddish school in North America. Several years later there was a split on the language issue and the Po'alei Zion left to start their own Farband Folk School. Those who remained renamed the institution the I.L. Peretz School of the Workmen's Circle (Arbeter Ring). In 1945 the United Jewish People's Order established its own children's school, the Morris Winchevsky School. The left Po'alei Zion, an ideological segment that did not reach Toronto until well after World War I, established its Borochov School and kindergarten in 1932. Toronto's first permanent educational institution was the Simcoe Street Talmud Torah, founded in 1908.
Though Orthodox in character and content, it followed the technique of Ivrit be-Ivrit. In 1916 a group, consisting mainly of Jews from Russian Poland who felt that the Ivrit be-Ivrit did not ensure a traditional enough training, started the Eitz Chaim Talmud Torah on D'arcy Street. An important development since the end of World War II was the growth of the congregational school and more strikingly the growth and expansion of the day school. From 1950 the bureau of Jewish education (later known as the Board of Jewish Education) was the central administrative body.
The Ezras Noshim, a women's aid group, was responsible for setting up the Mount Sinai hospital in 1923. From 1948 the welfare fund in partnership with the Toronto Zionist council assumed the functions of the United Jewish Appeal. There were over 70 chapters of Hadassah in Toronto, and 28 branches of the national council of Jewish women. B'nai B'rith had 26 men's lodges and 18 women's chapters. In addition, the Ontario offices of the Canadian Jewish Congress and of the Federated Zionist Organization of Canada were located in Toronto.
Serving the Jewish community of Toronto and its neighboring areas are more than two hundred separate organizations, including several committees, foundations and associations, many of which work in partnership with the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These organizations are largely dedicated to social services. Some provide financial support for individuals and outreach programs while others advocate for human rights and Jewish causes. Notable organizations include the Centre for Israel& Jewish Affairs, the Jewish Free Loan Toronto, Hillel of Greater Toronto, B'nai B'rith Canada, and the Canadian Jewish Political Jewish Affairs Committee.
There are also a number of Philanthropic organizations which offer grants and fund programs administrated by groups throughout the city. One such organization is The Philanthropy Forum, which provides funding for educational programs for both families and individuals. Battling hunger throughout Canada to feed the country is Mazon, an organization which has allocated more than seven million dollars to groups in Canada to feed the hungry. Ve'ahavta and United Chesed are two organizations which deliver poverty alleviation programs and offer urgent, short-term relief to those in crisis situations.
For healthcare and medical needs, there is Mount Sinai Hospital, a part of the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Health Complex. Internationally recognized, Mount Sinai is well known for providing excellent in patient and family care. Over the years, the hospital has received many awards and is one of the top employers in Canada.
The Jewish community of Toronto is replete with educational programs. Not only day school for children, but educational programming for adults as well. There are 43 after-school Jewish schools, 20 elementary schools for grades one through eight, and 16 Jewish high schools, including a number of yeshivas. Jewish education is also provided by social and cultural associations such as BBYO, the Jewish Youth Network (Chabad Youth Network) and Hillel, which is located on the campuses of University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University.
The city of Toronto boasts a number of Jewish cultural centers. One in particular is the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre; a popular tourist destination, the center features a permanent collection of archival photography, art, witness testimony and artifacts. Another important Jewish center is the Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre (OJA) holds the largest warehouse of Jewish life in Canada; founded in 1973, if offers guests a chance to explore Canada's Jewish past through a diverse collection of historic records.
Additionally, Toronto has three major community centers which offer a whole variety of different programs for individuals and families. The Posserman Jewish community Centre and the Schwartz Reisman Centre organize community events, provide athletic, educational and cultural programs, and promote community engagement and cohesion. The Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario was established to integrate the Jews from the Former Soviet Union by providing cultural, religious and educational services.
Toronto's Jews had a long history of landsmannschaften and sick benefit societies. With the advent of public medical services the sick benefit aspect subsided, and with growing acculturation the landsmannschaft phase also diminished. Post-World War II immigration, however, gave a new impetus to some of the landsmannschaften. A tendency to adapt to new conditions was reflected in the transformation of some of the sick benefit societies into synagogues, e.g., Beth Radom and Pride of Israel.
Located throughout the Greater Toronto area are over 80 Jewish landmarks. Many points of Jewish interest can be found in the Kensington Market/ Spadina area. Most landmarks are locations once home to historic Jewish institutions such as synagogues, schools, restaurants, businesses and organizations. In the Kensington Market neighborhood are two synagogues that remain from the early 20th century, the Kiever synagogue on Bellevue Avenue and Anshei Minsk on St. Andrews Street. A popular tourist site is the Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto's oldest congregation. Another notable landmark is the Balfour Building; names after Arthur J. Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration, the historic building was listed as a Toronto Heritage Property in 2011.
Among the notable Jewish aldermen were Philip G. Givens, Q.C. (1963-1966) and Newman Leopold (1883-85, and 1897). Two other early aldermen were Louis M. Singer (1914-1917) and Joseph Singer (1920, 1923), the first Jew to become a member of Toronto's Board of Control. From the 1920s Jewish aldermen and school trustees were elected frequently, especially from ward four. In the early 1970s Jews were playing a prominent role in Toronto's civic, cultural, musical, and theatrical circles.